Defining terms


Though coming up with a research question and writing a proposal was hard work, I was pleased with the result. Now I can get on with research, having identified thousands of pages of original sources, I need to get moving.  But, as my supervisor pointed out, I haven’t yet defined what I mean by my research topic – specifically, how am I going to define what I mean by the terms ‘treatment’, ‘poor’ and ‘disadvantaged’.

To be honest, I hadn’t given that any thought, which is a considerable failing. I had been very precise in defining ‘Cleobury Mortimer and surrounding parishes’ as those which made up the Cleobury Mortimer Poor Law Union from 1837. The period to be researched was defined, although given the enormous range of material available, it may be both ambitious and foolhardy to stick to a period of 130 years and I have made tentative noises about scaling back to 100 or so (do I hear 60?), depending on how I proceed.

‘Treatment’, ‘poor’ and ‘disadvantaged’ are important terms – they are at the heart of my research. But can I define what I mean by them without having done the research itself? I think the answer to that is ‘no’ – I won’t actually realize what I mean in depth until I have lots of data to hand. However, I have to define them initially so that I can make a start, otherwise I will not know what I am looking for or what is important.

A good definition of ‘treatment’ is action or behaviour towards others.  I would like to include, though,not just direct action or behaviour, but indirect actions – ie attitudes.  There are many studies and books which have been written on the topic of the administration of the poor laws.  I am not so interested in how things were done but in what was done and – if there was any way of finding out – why.  For example, there is a rather charming story relating to the workhouse at Kidderminster, the neighbouring poor law union.  The Guardians had arranged for a special Christmas meal for the inmates and wrote to the Poor Law Commission requesting sanction for the expense against the poor rate.  Sanction was refused and the letter arrived on Christmas Eve.  As the provisions had already been purchased, the Guardians got round the  problem by marking the entry in the correspondence book as being received on Boxing Day.

Now, in Cleobury Mortimer, it appears that Christmas lunch was a regular event – paid for as a separate benefit by the ratepayers, which implies positive treatment.

What is meant by ‘poor’ and disadvantaged’?

It is not the purpose here to argue for definitions of what is meant by ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘poor’, which would merit a whole paper on its own, but to state the definitions which will be used in this thesis.  However, it seems appropriate to give some reasoning.

It is very difficult to disregard our current day views and, instead, put ourselves in late 18C shoes.  Thinking at the time was strongly of the view that the ‘poor’ were responsible for their lot.   Today we have critics such as Townsend defining poverty as “the lack of the resources necessary to permit participation in the activities, customs and diets commonly approved of by society”[1] and Rawls declaring that “the expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class”.[2]  But these are norms that are unlikely to have been understood by the late Georgian and Victorian populace at large – or at least not by the majority of those who were themselves not poor or disadvantaged.

And yet, leaving aside all considerations of how effective or fair it was, a system was in place which set out to follow what we would now consider a ‘need theory of justice’ where those who are in most need are helped by the rest of society.  It did not, though, in any way fit with the Rawlsian concept of justice as fairness where society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage[3], and it generally failed Kant’s categorical imperative – other people often were very much seen as a means to an end – but still, the intention behind the ‘less-eligibility’ test of the New Poor Law was to help the truly destitute, even if the aim was to reduce the cost of doing so.

Definition of disadvantaged

Disadvantaged does not mean lack of advantage.  Having an advantage means that you have something that others do not – for example, money or a superior education.   Disadvantage means that you lack something that others have as a norm – not that they have in addition to the norm.

Disadvantaged compared to others then means, for example:

  • being an orphan, or not having a father living with the family
  • having a disability – physical affecting limbs, blindness, mental disability
  • being a married female, but then being widowed, deserted by husband, or husband incarcerated or transported
  • being an unmarried mother
  • being ill and therefore unable to work
  • being able-bodied, but unable to find work despite looking

There is no single norm against which all those disadvantaged in these ways can be compared.  In any event, there is no need to do so as each stands on its own as a clear disadvantage when compared with the contrary state.

There are two other states which could be considered to be disadvantages, but which I do not include in this list.  The first is:

  • lacking a basic education and not being able to read or write

There was quite strong hostility to the very idea of educating the poor.  For example, a Justice of the Peace is quoted in 1807 as saying that “As to writing and arithmetic, it may be apprehended that such a degree of knowledge would produce in them [the poor] a disrelish for the laborious occupations of life”.[4]  This was not an isolated view.  In the House of Commons, also in 1807, the Tory MP Davies Giddy said that “giving education to the labouring classes of the poor” […] would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching them the virtue of subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as is evident in the manufacturing counties; it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors; …”[5]  These views may seem outrageous, but in the context of the time, they were not unusual.  There was, of course, an equally strong movement to provide education for the poor, but it was slow and met a lot of resistance, even from parents.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, education in rural areas was limited and it was not uncommon for many ordinary citizens to be unable to write.  For this study, a major drawback is that there is little, if anything, in the records that identifies whether an individual had received any form of education, making it impossible to derive any conclusions as to the effect of lack of education as a disadvantage.  In any case, lack of basic education itself was not a barrier to finding gainful employment as an uneducated labourer.

The second disadvantage, which on the face of it seems sensible, is:

  • not having the means to pay rent or buy basic food or clothing

However, this generally derives from the inability to work – due to disability, illness ­– or being unable to find work.  Age per se does not seem to have been a barrier to work (or the need to find work) – There are several cases in the relieving officers’ records relating to people in their 70s and 80s who are no longer able to work due to infirmity – but frailty or incapacity due to age would be.  .  I shall use ‘not having the means to pay rent or buy basic food or clothing’ as the basic definition of being poor.

Definition of poor

Present day definitions of poverty tend to be quite wide ranging.  Townsend’s full definition of poverty read:  “Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and the amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average family that they are in effect excluded from the ordinary living patterns, customs, and activities”[6] whilst the OED offers “the condition of having little or no wealth or few material possessions” which does not conjure up the sense of being hungry, cold or wet.[7]

It is quite easy for us today to imagine the ‘average family’ to which Townsend compares, particularly given our focus on rights and expectations (in Townsend’s deprivation index, for example, he includes a week’s holiday way from home).[8]

There are difficulties in applying these wide ranging definitions to the conditions which existed in the late 18C and throughout the 19C.    Poor is a relative term.  We must not forget, for example, the concept of middle class poverty, where the outward trappings of middle class status are only just preserved to the detriment of other basic needs, either because of debt or insufficient income to keep up appearances.

Under the old Poor Law of 1601, the poor were defined as able-bodied, impotent or idle.  The able bodied, without work, were either given work or outdoor relief. The impotent were looked after, whilst the idle were chastised or sent to a house of correction.

It is not clear whether the contemporary view of a ‘sunken people’ underclass referred more to an urban context, though when Matthew Arnold wrote of ‘such a multitude of miserable, sunken and ignorant human beings’, he was referring to the industrialised cities.[9]  But that there was poverty in rural areas there is no doubt.

Sometimes, we see the term ‘destitute’ used, which is often understood to be a state of extreme poverty.  In my view, the OED definition really needs to be used for a different label.  The concept of poverty, indigence, want, penury, destitution is really the lack of basic needs – food, clothing, shelter.[10] It covers a very wide spectrum where at the extreme end, life is imminently threatened but starts with my earlier definition of “not having the means to pay rent or buy basic food or clothing”.


[1] Peter Townsend Poverty in the United Kingdom: A Survey of Household Resources and Standards, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, p.88 Back
[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universty Press, 1971, 1999), p.63 Back
[3] ibid pp.73-4 Back
[4] R Williams The Long Revolution, London: Chatto and Windus, 1961, p.135 Back
[5] Hansard, House of Commons, 13 July 1807, vol. 9, col. 798 Back
[6] Peter Townsend, p.31. Townsend’s definition is very similar to that given by Fr Joseph Wresinski (Journal Officiel de la République Française, Avis et rapports du Conseil Économique et Social, séances des  10 et 11 février 1987, p.6) which was later adopted by the United Nations (Leandro Despouy The Realization of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Final report in human rights and extreme poverty, United Nations (E/CN.4/Sub.2/19, 1996, p.96/13), Annex III Leandro Despouy The Realization of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Final report in human rights and extreme poverty, United Nations (E/CN.4/Sub.2/19, 1996, p.96/13), Annex III) Back
[7] “poverty, n.”. OED Online. March 2014. Ocford University Press. redirectedFrom=poverty (accessed April 02, 2014). Back
[8] ibid, p.250 Back
[9] Mathew Arnold Culture and Anarchy and other writings edited by Stefan Collini, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, p.174 Back
[10] John Denton. Society and the Official World, A Reintroduction to Sociology. Oxford: General Hall, 1990, p.17 Back

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